The Army and I divorced at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I checked into a Herald Square hotel and immediately went to a man’s store to get clothing any color but khaki. Anything but the faintest resemblance to Government Issue, GI.
Ten million other discharged soldiers had abandoned the obligatory military colors. White, blue, grey, patterned or striped had all sold out. I settled for a canary yellow. The parade had faded.
So had the music. “Hot” had become “cool” or “bop”. The jazz musicians no longer improvised on the melody, but on the underlying harmonic structure. I could follow the wind instruments, but the piano players all sounded as if they were playing Czerny finger exercises in a two octave range.
Love had also faded.
There once was a girl who had cried when I left Wisconsin for the Army. It was understood she would forever wait for me to return. Just before I left her mother had come from New York to visit her daughter, but I had only a few moments with my sweetheart forever’s Mom. Mrs. Estrow must have found me lacking in one virtue or another.
After I was in uniform Margie’s letters were slow in coming. Then she criticized my griping about being a coolie, and cited a friend who had “an interesting time” as a soldier. She hoped I would become an officer soon.
Three months after basic training I had a three day pass and came to New York. I called her and went to her apartment in the Bronx to say hello. She was still beautiful, and I hoped she would revert to that tearful girl who said goodbye. But she hadn’t. Margie Anne chided me because I knew nothing about squints and I was still an enlisted man.
She was dating an ophthalmologist who was a captain in the Medical Corps. Squints were his business. Her mother passed through the room without a word.
There was one more exchange of letters, and two years later, the second day as a canary- shirted civilian in New York, I called her. We met at the Russian Tearoom on 57th street, and she was even more attractive. But squints had given way to inlays and bridges. Her new husband John was a high ranking dentist in that part of New Jersey. She wanted me to know that she, her husband, and her mother thanked me for my service in the military. Her husband had been deferred for unmentioned reasons.
I took a plane to Chicago and a cab to my home.
It was difficult coming back to the bedroom Leon and I had shared. Eight years had gone by. My mother and father had not used the room nor touched the closet. My old clothes no longer fit.
Abe and Bess did not know how to treat me. Our meals had always been eaten next to the stove on an oilcloth-covered kitchen table. Dishtowels had served as napkins. But after I came home from the Army, Bess insisted on serving me on the dining room table, previously used only for company. The napkins were paper, but they were true napkins. In my boyhood existence at 705 Cornelia, Chicago Illinois, Abe brought his bottle to the table and poured himself a shot of schnapps. It was correctly assumed I would not have a drink. Now he urged it. “You must be having a tough time being home.”
For Abe to talk about any emotional state was unusual.
What was not unusual was for him to buy me clothing. The garment district in Chicago was much smaller than New York, but my father knew the textile merchants on Jackson Boulevard. Before the suit was made, the ritual was to fold out several lengths of excellent wool from a bolt of cloth, and then bring it to the face and wipe it, as if it were a large towel or fur. Sensuality ruled. The tailoring was secondary. Hand-made button holes, of course.
“Nobody uses the lower button on a double breasted suit. That’s five years back,” said Leon, who had written How a Gentleman Dresses Properly for a clothing company.
My parents were happy to lend me the car whenever I dated. The first date was June Provus. It ended explosively in the back seat of the car, just after the first dinner. After her detonation she told me she had to go home because the baby sitter left at nine o’clock. She said nothing about a husband. It was complicated, even scary. I never saw her again.
At college my thesis was to have been a novel, Lake Shore Drive. The central theme was the difference in culture between those who lived on that famous street, and those of us who did not have a view of Lake Michigan. For those of us who lived even west of Broadway (let alone west of Pine Grove) Lake Shore was our goal and our turf. I had estimated one needed as much as $7,500 a year to live in such luxury.
The war separated friends. My closest buddy, Hy Krauss, had not served. He was now a partner in a law firm headed by his father-in-law. His wife, Fran, was a brilliant, beautiful woman who vowed to find her husband’s best friend a woman even better than she.
She did. Janie Rosenquist was prettier than Fran, and lived in a penthouse duplex at 3800 Lake Shore Drive. We double-dated a few times with Hy and Fran. There was some hand holding at the movies, and one long wet goodnight kiss. She liked me and invited the three of us to dinner, served by a maid.
Her father was the top client at the law firm where Hy worked. Mr. Rosenquist wore a yarmulke. Janie held strong political views and was voluble about Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in Missouri, and angry with the Jewish dissidents who bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. I had noted her bosom was small, but hard, and she had long, lean legs.
At first I didn’t note what Mr. and Mrs. Rosenquist thought about me, but they were very orthodox Jews. There were prayers before dinner in Hebrew, and Judaica surrounded us. They were too rich and too Jewish. I came from west of Broadway. And I didn’t want to be proselytized.
That’s one of the things I admire about Judaism. Proselytizing is prohibited. There are no Jewish missionaries. I was a non-observant Jew but after refusing to be taken prisoner because of the “H” on my dog tag, and after the concentration camp at Ahlem, I knew I was a Jew. If other people thought I was a Jew, I was one. Or to misquote Descartes, “Vous pensez, donc je suis.”
When I called Mr. Rosenquist “mister”, he said, “Call me Bernard.” Mrs. Rosenquist wanted to be “Esther”. The glass curtain was invisible.
In the military there was an obvious brass curtain. Insignia of rank drew a line between enlisted men and officers. You saw it, you respected it, you saluted; not the person, but the rank. The brass curtain was clear.
In America, everybody is informal – but there are glass curtains. But you can get knocked just as flat on your ass by glass as by a brass or iron. I wasn’t going to gain entry into that orthodoxy at 3800 Lake Shore Drive, unless I became a different person and I didn’t want to become what would be suitable for their daughter.
False familiarity is a perpetual American tragedy.
I married a woman who shocked Hy, Fran and Janie.
She was a Finnish immigrant from a Finnish ghetto-community in a Massachusetts factory town. Shy, because English was not her first language. Shy because one had to be a Finn to pronounce correctly Irja Tuulikki Souminen. Mocked by the American children she played with. Quiet, reticent, withdrawn—except when there was a spotlight.
The muses are named for the creators, not the critics. She studied dancing with Balanchine’s School of the American Ballet where Mr. Ballanchine looked at her very carefully, as had Martha Graham at Bennington College, where she had a scholarship. After we married, her acting astonished Tennessee Williams and Lee Strasberg.
When our son arrived she became a painter. Her works were exhibited, well reviewed, and sold in Paris and New York.
The Finns have a word: sisu. It translates to strong will, guts, She was both diffident and determined. Wives must cook well. She couldn’t cook. Two days after we were married she went back to Massachusetts to take lessons from her mother.
I don’t remember the romantic side of our courtship. I do remember the first kiss, and the only thing I will write about it is that it was it was tender and her fine blonde hair tickled my ear. You have read and seen so many tales of love, lust, passion and companionship that I need only tell you we experienced them all. She will always be my wife, my love, and my best friend.
I don’t care that I lost Hy, Fran, and Jamie.